One Last Splash: The graduating players of 2018 #SLAMRisingStars

“Best SLAM Rising Stars game.”

These were the words that Jutt told me as he passed by where I was standing during the last minutes of the SLAM Rising Stars Classic 2018. This was my first year to cover this event, and my first time to witness a high school basketball game. But even if I had no idea how the previous iterations went, I could see where Jutt was coming from.

Some college-bound players were included in the event. Some of the graduating players were Team Hype’s John Galinato, CJ Cansino, LJay Gonzales and Neil Tolentino, and Team Punks’ Evan Nelle, Jason Celis and RJ Abarrientos, were included in the rosters The game was supposed to be their last splash at high school basketball. Instead, they sent huge waves to the country’s hoops scene by living up to what SLAM Rising Stars should be: A CLASSIC.

The young guns introduced themselves as the future of Philippine basketball by putting on a show for everyone watching in a game that went to overtime. This was arguably the most exciting SLAM Rising Stars game in its five-year history.

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Evan Nelle came surging right out of the gates, scoring 10 points in the opening period. Knowing that this was his last high school game, Evan kept attacking Team Hype’s defense throughout the game. “I wanted to give my all. No letdowns. Every play, dapat 100 percent. Every play, dapat give your all, offense and defense,” Nelle said after the game. He shot game-high 19 attempts, and was named as a co-MVP of the event alongside Kai Sotto.

After trailing by as much as 17, the undermanned Team Hype rode on the shoulders of John Galinato and CJ Cansino to almost steal the game from Team Punks. John led all scorers with 27 points, including the three pointer that gave his team the lead with 15 seconds remaining in regulation. CJ scored an efficient 20 points without missing any field goal and free throw attempts. Neil Tolentino chipped in 10 points and four rebounds for the team.

“Masarap sa feeling kasi maganda naipakita ko despite na isang year lang ako nakasali sa Rising Stars. Pero mas masarap sana kung nanalo kami. Pero okay lang, at least binigay namin yung best namin. Lumaban pa rin kami hanggang overtime kahit undermanned kami,” John exclaimed.

But for CJ, SLAM Rising Stars is more than just a basketball game. It’s an avenue to forge friendships among his contemporaries. “Sobrang saya ko kasi nakapaglaro ako sa ganitong event. Sa mga basketball players, lalo sa mga kaedaran ko, pangarap talagang mapasama dito. Tapos, di lang basketball, yung mga pagkakaibigan namin. Pagdating sa mga schools, magkakalaban kami. Tapos dito, magkakaibigan kami. Sobra yung excitement. Sobrang nakaka-miss pagkatapos nito.”

Team Punks’ Coach Olsen Racela believes that the future is bright for Philippine basketball. “Watching these kids play today, magagaling eh…ang taas ng skill level ng mga bata ngayon compared to my time. As I said, the future of Philippine basketball is really bright.”

LJ Gonzales

Coach Olsen is also excited to have RJ Abarrientos and LJay Gonzales in his fold when UAAP Season 81 starts. “Malaking bagay yung ganung klaseng players in any program, lalo na sa FEU.” Moreover, he is certainly glad that LJay will not play against him. “Alam ko na kung anong kaya ni LJay. Nakita ko lang kung ano ang pwede niyang gawin pag kalaban niya ako. Kaya gusto ko, nasa FEU siya. Ayokong makalaban si LJay.” The FEU coach might be right on the money, as LJay had an all-around performance at the Rising Stars: 14 points, six rebounds and seven assists for Team Hype. On the other hand, RJ finished with 17 points, five assists and three rebounds for Team Punks.

For the graduating players, they believe that SLAM Rising Stars helped them prepare in the bigger games in college. For Evan, it’s being ready to face any opponents all the time. “Di pwedeng mag-relax, kasi everyone wants to prove a point. Everyone wants to score on you. Everyone wants to defend you. Everyone wants to stop you. So dapat di ka talaga magre-relax. Dapat ibibigay mo lahat. 100 percent.”  He ended the game with team-high 21 points to go with four rebounds, three assists and two steals.

Like Evan, CJ also learned to bring the right mindset into the game. “Kahit all-star, dapat seryosohin. Hindi pwedeng puro papogi lang. Dapat yung may pride, yung may puso.”

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John certainly knows that bigger audience awaits him once he enters college basketball. He thinks that Rising Stars helped him handle the pressure that comes with beng watched by huge crowds. “Yung pag-handle ng maraming crowd pag naglalaro. Hyped yung crowd, hyped yung venue, yung liga itself. Pagdating siguro sa college, mabilis lang mag-adjust.” He certainly did well on handling the vibe on the court with his clutch baskets during regulation.

Sadly, graduation could mean playing away from your former teammates. It might not be the case for RJ and LJay, but it certainly is a possibility for John and fellow Blue Dragon Jason Celis. But for Jason, his friendship with John will remain off-court. However, it’s business as usual once he and Jason steps on the court, whether as teammates or not. “Siyempre pag sa court wala kaming kai-kaibigan eh. Laro kami ng laro namin.” Jason also thinks that he needs to improve his physique for him to be able to bring his A-game at the collegiate level. “Kasi pag college, malalaki na eh, tapos makakapal yung katawan. So kailangan kong magpalaki ng katawan. Saka training pa rin talaga.”

The game might be over, but they will carry with them the lessons they learned throughout the experience, as well as basketball memories that they can keep for the rest of their lives.

“Masaya. Wonderful experience. Once in a lifetime.”

This was how John summarized his SLAM Rising Stars experience. I felt how happy he was at that moment. This could have been the last SLAM Rising Stars for him, CJ, Neil, LJay, RJ, Evan and Jason, but they certainly put on the best show that they could. They turned their last splash in high school basketball to huge waves that served as their introduction to Philippine basketball.

(READ: Graduating Evan Nelle and 15-year old Kai Sotto dominate to win #SLAMRisingStars co-MVP)

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